Van Gogh & the Aesthetics of Redemption


A while back I was strolling through Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters, a gorgeous and substantive book that traces the famous artist’s creative and inner journey through a careful chronology of letters, sketches, and paintings. I was familiar with some of Van Gogh’s work, of course, but had never taken the time to slowly look through his broader oeuvre. And never had I read an extensive presentation of his personal letters. It has been a delightfully illuminating experience, especially regarding Van Gogh’s artistic intentions, his intriguing hypersensitivity to color, and his battle with illness.

In spite of what the casual eye might assume, Van Gogh was no anarchic paint splasher. He had a focused goal for every one of his pieces as is apparent in nearly every letter. Whether he was attending to technique or subject matter, Van Gogh understood what he was reaching for and why he needed to attain to it. Significantly, this sense of purpose placed, for him, these creative and often painstaking efforts in a much larger perspective. In a postscript to one of his letters (ca August 1883) he writes,

So I carry on in my ignorance, but knowing this one thing: I must accomplish certain work within a space of a few years; I need not rush, because there is no future in that—but serenely and with composure I must carry on working with as much regulation and concentration as possible, and as much to the point as possible. The world concerns me only in so far as I have a certain debt and duty to it, because I have lived in it for thirty years and owe to it to leave behind some souvenir in the shape of drawings and paintings—not done to please any particular movement, but within which a genuine human sentiment is expressed. This work is therefore my objective—and by concentrating on this thought, it simplifies what I do or don’t do in so far that it does not lead to chaos, but that all I do has one and the same aspiration.

4d8140624bf8faa95282e736dfcf02dcThis strange urgency coupled with a sense of obligation to the world brings Van Gogh into company with other tortured artists like Beethoven, Poe, Melville, Sexton, and even, we are now told, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz. Van Gogh was driven by an ideal not very much embraced in his day, at least in the art world. He sold only a single painting during his lifetime.

More interesting to me is the way Van Gogh perceived the physical world around him. His paintings, with their passionate commitment to an intense, often unorthodox palette, were reflections of how he actually processed visual stimuli. What you and I would see as a simple if beautiful landscape, Van Gogh saw as a lusty explosion of color. His letters disclose an astonishingly singular apprehension. Here is an excerpt from a letter dated to August 1882 in which he describes a current project:

It is a view of flat, green fields with haycocks. A cinder track with a canal alongside it runs straight across it. And on the horizon, in the middle of the painting, the sun sets in a fiery red glow . . . it was altogether a question of color and tone, the hues of a spectrum of colors of the sky, first a violet haze—in which the red sun was half hidden by a dark purple cloud with a thin, brilliantly red border; near the sun were reflections of vermilion, but above it a band of yellow that turned into green, and higher up a shade of blue, the so-called cerulean blue, and then here and there lilac and gray clouds, catching reflections of the sun. The ground was a kind of tapestry of green, gray, and brown, but full of patterning and bristling with movement—the water in the ditch sparkles in that multi-hued ground.

Van Gogh’s passionate attention to color was deeply religious for him. The laws of colors, he wrote, are indescribably wonderful, particularly because they are in no way accidental. This sounds remarkably similar to any number of reveries recorded by the 18th century revivalist Jonathan Edwards; for example, this from Edward’s Personal Narrative:

After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.

Indeed, Van Gogh saw his entire creative enterprise in religious terms. There is something infinite about painting, he wrote to his brother Theo. I can’t quite explain it to you. Painting was Van Gogh’s meticulous, even obsessive communion with the ineffable. When I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.

Van Gogh’s troubled emotional life is proverbial. He experienced a series of debilitating episodes that found him confined to his bed or recovering in a sanitarium. In 1889 a series of relapses found him in an asylum in Stain-Rémy. Yet despite the strains of living among genuinely insane patients, he made some of his most famous paintings during that time, including Starry Night. By 1890, however, his episodes (by then diagnosed as epileptic seizures) were taking their toll, and though his commitment to his work was unflagging—at one point painting 70 canvases in 70 days—his personal night was quickly descending. On July 27, while painting in a wheat field, he shot himself in the chest and died two days later. He was 37 years old. For the deeply fractured painter, oblivion was the promise of a sweet peace that had eluded him his brief adult life.

Old-Man-in-Sorrow-(On-the-Threshold-of-Eternity)The relationship, if any, between Van Gogh’s artistic vision and his wracked self is speculative. Was his singular, nearly beatific vision the result of his inner turmoil, or was it the other way around? All troubled geniuses make us wonder. Some of them, Van Gogh included, bind their agony and ecstasy in an inextricable embrace. The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, he wrote shortly before the earlobe incident, so much more am I an artist. For Van Gogh brokenness was the artistic seed within him, the bruise through which he was able to recolor the world, to amplify its visual and spiritual volume for the rest of us who have long since lost our ability to see and hear its ravishing beauties. To redeem our vision, Vincent endured the all too brightness of his own and brushed his soul upon every canvas. Yet we consider him stricken, smitten, and afflicted.

What is it about redemption that exacts such a cost? Why is brokenness necessary to mend brokenness? What ruthless equation, demanding obeisance of even the Almighty, choreographs this relentless dance? On what varied canvases is brushed, each day, the anguish of our redeemers? Why such a cruel beauty?

I know the doctrines, but I do not know the answer. Perhaps Vincent could tell us; perhaps he tried to. Perhaps the beauty is itself the answer, unknown to us exactly because we do not see it. And when some do, they are crushed by it, and we drink the wine that flows from their agony. This is no sin; they pour it out freely.

And now I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen; they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will.
—Don McLean, Vincent

*   *   *

Read Part Two: The Art of Longing

Check out a nice little slide show of Van Gogh’s paintings to the song Vincent by Don McLean.



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